There is, somewhere in Prague, a most peculiar cemetery – I cannot say where, for I was taken there by car when fog lay over the city like a fetid blanket. It’s for musicians. But not any musicians. Only amateur musicians who have played in an amateur symphony orchestra or chamber ensemble at least three times.
‘Before their death, that is,’ said Pavel my guide. He gave a solemn laugh. He also explained that a condition of their being buried in this cemetery was that they were devoid of talent. ‘To a most remarkable degree,’ he said.
‘Come,’ he added, ‘let us visit.’ We left the car and walked between two high wrought-iron gates and to the gravel path that wound its crunching way this way and that between expanses of grass on either side.
‘You will like what you will see,’ said Pavel.
His English has a peculiar intonation that makes a simple prediction sound like an order. ‘You will be able to amuse your friends,’ he tells me.
The path came to an end and the cemetery lay before us. On each horizontal grey marble slab there was a musical instrument, of stone. Here a violin, there a cello; somewhere else a trumpet and further on a drum. A stone clarinet stood at an angle of thirty degrees, possibly at the same angle at which it had been played.
Pavel gave one of his laughs, and pointed. Someone had placed two testicular-shaped pebbles at the base of the instrument.
We inspected the entire cemetery. Pavel stopped sometimes to comment on a grave. This one played like an angel, a fallen angel but an angel nevertheless. That one’s violin screeched like a banshee; he was so bad that he was allowed to play in public only if he sat as far back as possible only pretending to play. The conductor had allowed this because the talentless wretch’s mother doted on him and paid for tickets for all the family so they could come and hear ‘my son, the violinist, play’.
She was tone deaf, it was said, to the extent that she never noticed anything was amiss when, like a screech owl, he played his practice sessions. There was also the rumour that she was totally without hearing and that her violinist son only simulated play even when rehearsing. But of this there is no proof that might stand up in a court of law.
‘Even here,’ said Pavel.
He added that there seemed to be no lengths to which some parents would not go to convince themselves that the hopes they had cherished for themselves might at least be realised in their sons or daughters. It was, he added further, the triumph of narcissism over mediocrity.
He gestured to where a harp of stone with wire strings, now rusty, commemorated a harpist who had lost a finger from each hand and had been in much demand despite the curiosities of her performance. Further away to the left was a lute (or was it a flute?). Played by someone who’d had a cleft palate, hence an eccentric embouchure, it had left much to be desired.
Perhaps the saddest of all were the half pianos. Of these there were two. Pavel explained that each half had once been a half of a whole. ‘Do you mean to tell me,’ I asked him, ‘that these are replicas of two halves of the same piano?’
‘Exactly,’ he said. ‘One for the musician’s left hand whose right had become incapacitated due to an embolism or an amputation,’ he hardly remembered which. ‘The other, for the right hand because the left had been damaged by machinery or a landmine,’ and again he could not recall which of the two it was.
But the most sinister stone was that of the conductor. You might be pardoned for expecting to find a magisterial figure in full evening dress, poised, on his toes perhaps, a grimace of intention on his brow or some such expression commensurate with his calling. But all there was to be seen was a small square of concrete, just large enough to accommodate such a person, and on it, a little to one side, a baton. Lying there as if it might have fallen from the grasp at his last performance (several more examples were included but these have been removed on the grounds of good taste).
Finally, Pavel turned to me. ‘What do you have to say?’
‘It is remarkable,’ I told him, ‘in almost every respect.’ He paid no attention to my implied criticism.
‘You will tell your friends, you will instruct them to come here.’
‘I will be delighted,’ I said. ‘You must give me the address and how to get here.’
‘Just imagine,’ Pavel said as we drove away into the fog, ‘how it will be on judgement day. They will all rise up and join into their orchestras and play with such intensity, such fervour, and such,’ he paused and did his laugh, ‘such cacophony as has not been heard for centuries, millennia even. Of course by that time music will have changed so much that how they play may well be in fashion.’
He laughed and gently nudged me in the ribs as we drove deeper and deeper into the fog. The next day he accompanied me to the airport. The fog had thinned considerably and the augurs for our departure were promising.
It was only when I sat observing the clouds and meditating on mediocrity that I realised he had not given me the location of the cemetery.
Pavel passed away soon after and I was told that he was probably interred in the very same cemetery we had visited. But no one seems to know where it is and as the years go by I wonder more and more if we went there at all. Such is the conflation among memory, truth and fiction these days it is difficult for me to know what to believe.
Harry Greenberg was a counsellor to victims of torture, and spent many of his latter years writing and publishing stories, articles and witty asides on Jewish life and upbringing. His Letters to Kafka is published by CentreHouse Press and is available at Amazon Kindle and on most other ebook platforms. There are plans to publish more from Harry’s backlist.